This was a rude awakening.
The Dolphins came to this national prime-time game against the New England Patriots full of hope and bravado and thinking maybe, just maybe, they could weave the same kind of magic against the defending Super Bowl champions they had conjured on the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans the previous two weeks.
The reality of this 36-7 loss to the New England Patriots is that there is no fairy to wave a wand and turn a terrible 1-3 team into a champion in less than a month, no matter how eager and good the interim head coach might be.
The reality is this Dolphins season is going to be like the rest of the ones we’ve witnessed since Tom Brady came off that bench to replace Drew Bledsoe in 2001: The Dolphins are now vying for the No. 2 spot in the AFC East.
That really is the best-case scenario this year.
But in the wake of even this humbling defeat that puts the Dolphins in their place, there is nothing that says Miami fans should give up hope for something better than 8-8.
The truth is the Dolphins are in a division with one super team. They are also in a conference with perhaps that one super team, unless you think Andy Dalton is suddenly special and makes the Cincinnati Bengals equally super as New England.
That offers hope because the Dolphins don’t play a super team every week.
And being the team that finishes second to the Super Patriots is not a terrible thing if that role of bridesmaid includes a trip to the playoffs.
And that’s what the Dolphins can still aim for: The NFL postseason as a wild-card team is still a possibility as surely as the idea of winning the division is utter ridiculousness.
The next couple of weeks might determine if this team is still worthy of maintaining that hope for a wild-card berth. The next couple of weeks on the road at Buffalo and Philadelphia will determine a lot of things like, well, who the next coach will be.
Look, forget Thursday night. The Dolphins came to this game bent on preparing hard for every game and the short week prevented that. The veteran Patriots had more playmakers, made more plays and are simply just too good.
But the Dolphins have 10 days before they play the Bills. A victory there gets them back to .500 through the first half of the season.
A victory there gets them back in the race for a wild-card berth.
Lose to the Bills, however, and this season is going to start looking like so many of the other mediocre seasons we’ve seen from this team. Lose to the Bills and the Dolphins will be winless after four division games.
Season over for all practical intents and purposes.
That’s important on multiple levels, but it is obviously a big deal to interim coach Dan Campbell.
It was widely understood the Dolphins were giving Campbell 12 weeks to make a bid to become more than the Dolphins’ interim coach. But actually, a source has told me, the time period during which the Dolphins were going to give Campbell exclusive thought was four to six weeks.
And as Campbell is three weeks into that time period already, the man is getting three weeks or games, including Thursday night, to prove he’s worth hiring for the full gig while the Dolphins do not look around or consider anyone else.
And how does Campbell keep Miami’s full attention and keep the brass from starting to look around? Well, he’s got to beat division opponents for starters. He’s got to keep his team in the race.
He’s got to beat the Bills for starters.
If Campbell, 2-1 as the coach, can keep his team playing with urgency and energy, then the Dolphins will delay putting out feelers, contacting agents, to feel out future coaching possibilities.
But lose to Buffalo and executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum will start doing his homework and that time period in December when the due diligence becomes something more, the Dolphins will officially be on a coach search.
So how can Campbell avoid this? How can the Dolphins players help keep a coach that they seem to love in the role he’s currently holding?
They did precious little of that Thursday night and will be hard pressed to do more in the future with perhaps the team’s most effective player, Cameron Wake, done for the season with an Achilles injury sustained in the second half.
What happened against these Patriots cannot repeat.
And what was that?
The Dolphins’ best player in the first half was punter Matt Darr.
He had a 70-yard punt and flipped the field a couple of times for the Dolphins. And that’s great work by Darr. He is a rookie, and he’s 10th in the NFL in net punting.
But you know what it means when the punter is a team’s best player in a half?
It means 19-0 at halftime.
It means something went wrong.
It means the playmakers on the team failed.
And that definitely was the case for Miami’s playmakers. Ryan Tannehill, the AFC Offensive Player of the Week, had a short reign because he followed his four-touchdown performance against Houston with two interceptions against New England.
Lamar Miller, who ran as “if his hair was on fire” before this game, according to Campbell, apparently got doused.
It lost on a third-and-16 play that helped the Patriots extend their first drive and eventually score the first time they had the football.
Jamar Taylor got picked on. Ndamukong Suh made no substantial difference in the outcome. Reshad Jones tried vainly to stick with Rob Gronkowski.
It just was too little of what we had seen the previous two weeks. Of course, the Patriots are a different brand of opponent.
But the Dolphins don’t play the Patriots every week. That’s the only hope for the season that remains for the Dolphins.